December 25, 2013 - For many Americans, Christmas often means excess – too many gifts, too much food and massive credit card debt.
Oxford Free Methodist Pastor Michael Alexander takes a moment to relax in Malawi. (click for larger version)
But Rev. Michael Alexander, pastor of the Oxford Free Methodist Church, wished to offer a different perspective on things based on his 31-day mission trip to the southeast African nation of Malawi back in the fall.
"It's not about stuff," he said. "In America, so much (of Christmas) is about stuff. We spend a lot of money on gifts and sometimes later that day, they're broken.
"People get angry. I read an article about two ladies at Wal-Mart on Black Friday fighting over towels. Is this really what Christmas is about? Is this really what we celebrate? People are dying around the world because of hunger. They literally have nothing. And you're going to fight over towels? You're going to get upset because you didn't get what you wanted?"
Here's a photo that Oxford Free Methodist Pastor Michael Alexander took of some Malawians attending a church service. (click for larger version)
Spending so much time training and teaching pastors in Malawi, the second poorest nation in the world, definitely changed the way Alexander views life, particularly here in the United States.
"We can keep poverty at a distance because we can drop some money in a Salvation Army bucket (while we're) going into K-mart or Walmart and it doesn't really cost us anything," he said. "But when you get involved in people's lives and get to know people and look in their faces, I think it changes everything."
He said the poverty here is nothing compared to what the people of Malawi must endure on a daily basis.
"It's an incredibly needy country," Alexander said.
The kids are covered in dirt, wearing tattered clothing that the "Salvation Army and Goodwill would never accept" and shoes that are falling apart.
Workers have an average annual income of only $253.
"They have nothing," Alexander said.
Accompanying that poverty is an unfathomable level of personal tragedy.
"Everybody there has a story of tragedy that we don't have here in the States," Alexander said.
Children, spouses and siblings are routinely lost to malnutrition, disease and animal attacks. Malawi is thought to have nearly 500,000 children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS, according to Save the Children.
"We all have tragedy in our life, but it's just such a part of their lives. It's so normal," Alexander said.
But, according to Alexander, this grinding poverty and pervasive tragedy has brought the people of Malawi together in way that's very different from Americans.
"They depend on each other for survival," he said. "We depend on each other for convenience or for pleasure. There, it's literally day-to-day survival."
It's also brought them closer to God and strengthened their faith.
"We depend on faith sometimes for convenience. They depend on God for everything," Alexander said. "They live completely by faith because they don't know where their next meal is coming from. God said He's going to take care of (them) and (they believe) He will. It's really beyond description."
Although the people of Malawi are poor in terms of wealth and material possessions, they are rich in the spirit of hospitality.
"The people are phenomenal," Alexander said. "Their slogan is the 'Warm Heart of Africa.' That's the country's motto. The people are really accepting. They're very friendly, for the most part. The churches (and) the pastors are just incredibly giving and loving. Hospitality is huge to them."
A perfect example of this is when Alexander and his family had dinner at a Malawian pastor's home during a 2011 mission trip.
After dinner, one of Alexander's children saw the pastor's kids eating their scraps.
"That's just the way they are – they'll take care of others before they take care of themselves," he said. "For them to feed us was just an overwhelming experience."
It's incidents like this that motivated Alexander to return to Malawi this year.
"Africa gets inside you and once it gets inside you, it never leaves," he said. "The people, their smiles and their faces. It's those things that made me want to go back. It's those things I think about on a daily basis."
The people of Malawi are particularly on Alexander's mind during the Christmas season because to him, their values and the way they live their lives are the essence of the holiday.
"They truly understand what Christmas is about – the birth of our savior," he said. "That's the greatest gift that they have and the only thing that they depend on."
Alexander believes Americans can learn a thing or two from the Malawians.
"If we would all slow down and take stock of our life, take stock of what we celebrate, understand what life is really about and appreciate that life is precious and short, we'd realize that having the latest iPod or iPhone adds nothing to our life," he said. "It's people, it's relationships and it's faith in God that gets us through. It's not stuff. The gifts will soon be forgotten."
That's why Alexander encourages those reading this story to not "worry so much about gifts," and instead "focus on people."
"Truly care about those around you that don't have anything and help them. That's what I'd love to see happen," he said.
"So much of what we are is selfish – what's it going to do to me and how's it going to affect my life? I think if we would get over that selfishness, the whole world would be a lot better place."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.